Iran launches missiles, drones at Israel, marking unprecedented escalation of regional tensions

Iron dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles as rockets fired from Lebanon, as it seen over the Hula Valley, April 12, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

by Ron Kampeas

(JTA) — Iran launched missiles and more than 100 drones at Israel late Saturday, in an attack that marks the first time that Israel’s most powerful enemy has directed weapons directly toward Israeli territory.

Israelis in the north, the center and south were told to head to bomb shelters, and sirens and explosions were heard in much of the country, including in Jerusalem, as Israel and its allies worked to shoot down the drones. At least one person, a child from the Bedouin Arab town of Arad, was reported to have been injured by falling shrapnel.

The United States and Britain reportedly shot down some of the drones, and Israeli media reported that Jordan, which has heavily criticized Israel’s war in Gaza, had shot down drones over its territory as well.

Shortly after 1 a.m. Israel time on Sunday, Iran said it had concluded its volley. But shortly thereafter Israel’s army spokesman said the army had identified surface-to-surface missiles fired from Iranian territory.

“A short while ago, Iran fired surface-to-surface missiles at Israel,” Israel Defense Forces spokesman Daniel Hagari said. “There are multiple Israeli Air Force planes in the air and ready for every threat. You may hear explosions from interceptions.”

After the drones were launched, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was ready to strike back, portending an escalation in a growing regional conflict surrounding the Israel-Hamas war.

“We are watching the threat. It will take hours to arrive,” Hagari said in a televised announcement of the launch of the drones from Iran and from territories controlled by actors allied with the regime.

Israeli media said the drones could take six to eight hours to arrive. It was not immediately clear what threat the drones posed, but experts speaking on Israeli media said that the drones could overwhelm Israeli air defenses, allowing entry to more lethal missiles timed to enter Israeli airspace at the same time.

In a brief address to the nation, Netanyahu said Israel was ready for the threat and thanked the United States, France and Britain, suggesting that those countries would assist in Israel’s self-defense.

“We appreciate the U.S. standing alongside Israel, as well as the support of Britain, France and many other countries,” he said. “We have determined a clear principle: Whoever harms us, we will harm them. We will defend ourselves against any threat and will do so level-headedly and with determination.”

Israel closed its airspace, keeping scheduled flights from landing or taking off.

Iran was retaliating for an assume Israeli strike on an Iranian embassy building in Syria last week that killed a number of Iranian officials. “The malicious Zionist regime will be punished,” the Iranian leader, Ali Khamenei, said on X, formerly known as Twitter, after the launch.

Just aft6er 1 a.m., Israel time, Iran’s U.N. mission said the mission was completed, suggesting there would be no further escalation.

“Iran’s military action was in response to the Zionist regime’s aggression against our diplomatic premises in Damascus,” the mission said on X. “The matter can be deemed concluded.”

U.S. and Israeli analysts have said their assessment is that Iran does not want a major regional war but must demonstrate that it will not tolerate attacks like the one in Syria. Still, the launch of the drones could escalate the war that began Oct. 7 when Hamas terrorists massacred hundreds of people in Israel.

The drone attack already seemed to have the unintended consequence of bridging differences between President Joe Biden and Netanyahu over Israel’s conduct in the war, which has cost tens of thousands of Palestinian lives.

Before he left for his home in Delaware on Friday, Biden said he had a one-word warning for Iran: “Don’t.”

“We are devoted to the defense of Israel,” Biden said. “We will support Israel. We will defend — help defend Israel. And Iran will not succeed.”

Biden interrupted his weekend at his home in return to the White House on Saturday to be apprised of the threat by his national security team, the National Security spokeswoman, Adrienne Watson, said in a statement.

“This attack is likely to unfold over a number of hours,” she said.  “President Biden has been clear: our support for Israel’s security is ironclad.  The United States will stand with the people of Israel and support their defense against these threats from Iran.”

Weaponized drones have become more common in warfare, particularly in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Hagari warned Israelis to heed any alerts to enter their secured rooms and to remain there at least 10 minutes. Israel’s government ordered schools closed for the coming days. On Thursday, the United States barred government personnel and their families in Israel from traveling outside several major urban areas.

“Out of an abundance of caution, U.S. government employees and their family members are restricted from personal travel outside the greater Tel Aviv (including Herzliya, Netanya, and Even Yehuda), Jerusalem, and Be’er Sheva areas until further notice. U.S. government personnel are authorized to transit between these three areas for personal travel,” the alert said.

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